Although he’s not retiring, Raffi is a case study in successful succession.
In an era of corporate consolidation in which few mid-sized family businesses have survived, Raffi is a notable exception. The business has not just survived for almost three decades but is thriving. And founder Raffi Shaya predicts major growth over the next few years based on a healthy men’s knitwear business (offering quality, value, service and constant innovation), a fledgling women’s component (10 percent to total now, 20 percent by year-end) and a new generation of management with lots of creative ideas.
As happens in best-case scenarios, Raffi’s three daughters are all happily involved in this next-generation team, each in a different capacity. Limor, the oldest of the three, was an art and photography major at Northeastern University, interned at Boston magazine, started out packing and invoicing in the warehouse and now handles the website, photo shoots and trunk shows. (She also just ran her third marathon: 26.2 miles in four hours and four minutes!) Shirley, who also graduated from Northeastern, handles customer service, sales, design, production and social media. Kareen, a Brown graduate who majored in finance and international management (she also took knitting courses at FIT) has for years been traveling with her dad to China and Italy and now works with the production manager in all their overseas factories. She’s also heading up the women’s division, which launched just two years ago at the suggestion of Linda Mitchell from Mitchells.
“We don’t have titles here: it’s a hands-on company and everyone does everything,” adds Jenny Au, Raffi’s right-hand exec and virtually a fourth daughter. (“I knew this was the right place for me,” says Jenny, now in her sixth year, “when I showed up late for work one day with my sick baby and instead of reprimanding me, Raffi immediately put his hand on her forehead to check her fever…”)
According to Raffi, the secret to a family business with minimum conflict is not all that profound. “We’ve always involved the girls in the business and shared everything with them since they were kids. We let them participate, voice their opinions and if there’s disagreement, we find a way to solve it.” For their parts, the girls credit their dad for always listening to their ideas and concerns, and their mom for making the whole thing work. While Raffi’s the dynamic outside guy, the energetic and optimistic leader, Arlette’s the very wise matriarch who quietly holds it all together. (Both Arlette and Raffi personally work every trade show; how many company owners can say as much?)
Three business secrets from Raffi: 1) Fourth quarter was strong because they’d introduced a gorgeous new merino yarn and even though it was already selling well, they offered a price incentive at Thanksgiving to give retailers additional margin for holiday. (Retailers typically take a 65 to 70 percent markup on Raffi knits.) 2) Their in-stock program is second to none, and stores call every day for fill-ins. (Or as Raffi puts it, “If you’re out of gas, you go to a gas station. If you’re out of sweaters, you go to Raffi…”) and 3) The value in the product is exceptional, e.g. stores retail Raffi’s Loro Piana cashmere made-in-Italy lofty knits ($185 cost) at $600 but they’re comparable to certain Italian makers that charge $1200…
What have the girls learned from their dad? Says Limor: “Never give up! When one door closes, another opens.” Adds Kareen, “Find the positive in every situation, especially the challenges.” And from Shirley, “Enjoy life! And always dance…” (And just a few weeks after having both knees replaced, Raffi is already dancing! And running around with six grandchildren…)